Good Re-start for Farm Preservation

November 24, 1993

Howard County's newly revived farm preservation program hit the ground running, with an advisory board's recent recommendation to buy development rights from all 10 property owners who wish to sell. Among the tracts is a real prize, the 723-acre Holly House Farm near West Friendship. It's the largest property ever considered for the program.

The county government has $11.5 million in its preservation fund -- an amount deemed more than enough to purchase the properties. If County Executive Charles Ecker agrees to make the offers and the owners accept, 1,910 acres of county land would be saved in perpetuity from development. That prohibition would remain even if the properties were to change hands in the future.

This is precisely the result the local government sought when the County Council last winter passed a bill toughening the county's criteria for admission to the preservation program and raising the top purchase price to $6,600 an acre.

Previously, the program had been a mixed bag of frustrations and successes. In its first form, from 1980 to 1988, it couldn't match what developers were offering to landowners. Builders gobbled up properties while the county futilely aspired to protect 30,000 acres in rural western Howard.

Then, in 1988, the program was revamped. Instead of paying the full price in cash up front, the county began compensating landowners with tax-free payments of the interest on the agreed-on sale price over 30 years. At the end of the 30-year period, a balloon payment would be made. The government suddenly became inundated with applications for easements. Later, however, critics claimed the program had gotten too successful. They charged the government with wasting funds by enriching landowners whose properties were undevelopable anyway. Others suggested that the acquisition fund be used to help balance the county budget. Wisely, Mr. Ecker and the council decided, early last year, to freeze the program.

The new version includes a strict rating formula to help ensure that the county obtains only the most attractive land parcels for preservation as farmland. The county is only about halfway to its goal of 30,000 preserved acres, but if these 10 deals go through, some important steps will be taken toward that praiseworthy objective.

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